International Day of Women and Girls in Science: Tanya Parish

Posted on February 11, 2022   by Microbiology Society

Tanya Parish (University of Washington and Seattle Children's Research Institute) followed Agnes Fouet as Editor-in-Chief of Microbiology, taking up the role in 2015. Tanya held this role until 2020, when the current Editor-in-Chief Gavin Thomas was appointed, and as part of the 75th anniversary of the journal we spoke to her about her term and her experience as a woman in science. 

Please tell us a bit about yourself (who you are, what you work on and where are you were based).  

I am a Professor in the Department of Paediatrics at the University of Washington’s School of Medicine, and a Principal Investigator at Seattle Children's Research Institute. My work focusses on understanding the biology of the pathogen Mycobacterium tuberculosis and discovering and developing novel drugs for tuberculosis (TB) that are effective at curing drug-sensitive and drug-resistant TB.  

How did you get involved in the Microbiology Society and then Microbiology?  

I became a member of the Microbiology Society back when I was a graduate student working on mycobacteria. After that I became an Associate Editor for Microbiology and I served in that position for seven years. I then became Senior Editor for almost six years before becoming the Editor-in-Chief. It was really interesting to see so much change occurring during this time – I still remember when we used to receive our editorial assignments as hard copies in Tyvek envelopes.  

What were some of the hot topics during your term as Editor-in-Chief?  

During my time as Editor-in-Chief we saw lots of developments in biotechnology and microbiome science, as well as the real evolution of big data science. The rise of antimicrobial resistance and emerging infectious diseases was also a hot topic.  

What were some of your highlights as Editor-in-Chief, and your biggest challenges in the role?  

One of my highlights was when the Editorial Board reached equal numbers of men and women. It took a little while for us to get there, but it reflected a conscious effort in appointing new editors to reflect the scientific community we serve. Another area was being able to introduce new types of articles, including the Microbe Profiles which had been under development with my predecessor Agnes Fouet, but also the new short communications. I even got to write one with another Senior Editor, Professor Steven Gordon. It was a lot of fun to work closely with the Senior Editors, who were all incredibly smart and motivated individuals. I also loved the Society’s Annual Conference where we were able to get together with all the Editors.  

Our biggest challenge was to maintain article submissions at a high level, especially when there were so many new microbiology journals being launched. Keeping the journal relevant to the modern microbiology community required us to revamp the scope. Related to this, we needed to educate the Society members about the role the journal plays and how important it is to the Society.  

As a woman working in science, what challenges have you faced?  

The challenges facing women in science are broadly the same as those facing women in all working environments. Since scientists are human, we all have unconscious biases which are reflected in working environments and the way that women are viewed and promoted. This is directly linked to one of my challenges, which has been dealing with imposter syndrome (which is more common in women than in men) and comes partly from the societal pressure on women.  

Another challenge has been to deal with the double bind that arises from gender stereotyping, in that women who are in leadership roles are seen as either likeable or competent (but not both). There are no easy answers to either of these dilemmas, since they put additional pressures on women, but as society moves away from rigid gender stereotypes, these are slowly easing. Another area that has that can sometimes be challenging is social media. While it has been great to connect with the scientific community over multiple platforms, women bear the brunt of much of the abuse and bullying that happens on social media. This can sometimes make it hard to engage in a discussion and I have seen some of my scientist friends receive an incredible amount of vitriol and abuse on these platforms.  

How do you think things have changed for women working in science over the course of your career so far?  

There's no doubt that things have changed for women over the last 30 years, with more women staying in the workplace and more acknowledgement of discriminatory policies. Much of the overt misogyny and discrimination that I witnessed decades ago has disappeared from the workplace, although there is still a lot of unconscious bias and unintentionally discriminatory policies. Today there is more recognition that women are missing from the higher ranks in science, and that this needs to be addressed. There is now a conscious effort to ensure that women are represented on editorial panels, grant review panels, and at conferences. Another big change is that women have been allowed to give voice to their concerns more openly.  

Do you have any advice for other women working in science?  

Science is an incredibly rewarding career. Where else is it a good thing to ask questions all the time? The joy of being the first person to see a piece of data or come up with a new hypothesis is an incredible motivation and you get to work with other talented people constantly exchanging ideas. My advice to other women working in science is to celebrate the small wins every day. That keeps you going when it gets difficult. Find yourself good mentors and supporters who can help to promote your work, don't be afraid to put yourself forward for opportunities and recognise imposter syndrome for what it is.  

Why does microbiology matter?  

There is so much about microbiology that underpins our civilisation – everything from making our food and drink, dealing with human waste and treating infectious diseases. From my perspective, as someone who works on a bacterial pathogen, microbiology is key to finding solutions and eradicating infectious diseases. We need to understand the basic biology of infectious organisms in order to prevent transmission, but more importantly to enable us to develop new drugs. We need to figure out how to kill organisms and then translate that into making drugs that can be used in humans. It's no coincidence that the first effective treatment for bacterial infections was an antibiotic, i.e. a substance produced by one organism that kills another species, so also understanding how micro-organisms synthesise these antibiotics is important.